The Salafist Challenge to al-Qaeda’s Jihad

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 44

Pakistani Islamist Syed Abul A'ala Maududi, whose work provided the origins for al-Qaeda's version of Salafism.

When commentators analyze Salafism, it is crucial to distinguish between mainstream Salafism and the kind of revolutionary Salafism promoted by al-Qaeda.  To do otherwise is to lump together peaceful communities and violent revolutionary jihadists.  This distinction has become increasingly important over the last few years as mainstream Salafism has emerged as an important counter to the ideology of violent jihadist groups pledged to follow al-Qaeda.  Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the wellsprings of both versions of Salafism, have established programs to reunite revolutionary jihadists with the Sunni Muslim mainstream in their respective countries.  In the war of ideas both programs have already been successful in educating the Muslim public about the way contemporary violent jihadists have deviated from the tradition they claim to be following.  We may have further opportunities to judge the efficacy of these programs because they seem to be spreading.  In 2006 Libyan authorities began religious discussions and negotiations with incarcerated members of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyah al-Muqatilah bi Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – LIFG), known for its ties to al-Qaeda.  In 2009 these discussions led to the release of some of its older members from prison (see Terrorism Monitor, June 18, 2009). The distinguishing characteristic of the members who were released was their renunciation of violence in a document that became known as al-Muraja’at (“the Revisions”).  The Revisions did not change the ultimate goals of these men; rather the document used arguments based on Islamic law to demonstrate that the violent overthrow of Arab and Muslim governments is illegitimate. [1]

In the most recent development, pan-Arab daily Dar al-Hayat reported a movement in three Algerian prisons among adherents of “Salafist jihad” to re-examine the use of violence (Dar al-Hayat, November 16). If successful, the article suggests, this tentative step in the direction of disarmament might be looking at the LIFG’s renunciation as a model.  If Algerian jihadists begin to follow in the footsteps of the Egyptian, Saudi and Libyan groups to renounce the violent path of armed jihad against the central government, we could expect to see a further weakening of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  AQIM has already suffered at the hands of Algerian security forces but remains active, especially in the Sahel region, more as kidnappers and bandits than as a revolutionary Islamic movement.  This time, however, the attack on AQIM could come as an internal ideological reversal guided by traditional religious authorities.  If this effort is successful, it would appear that mainstream Salafist religious leaders are one of the most potent complements to security operations in the struggle against the so-called “Salafi-Jihadis.”  It is important to note, however, that without strong security operations as leverage, programs leading to revisions would be extremely unlikely, if not impossible.  This requirement does not mean that the revisions are ineffective; once jihadists sign such a document, their ideological credibility and motivation to support violence as jihadists diminishes significantly.  As this movement of renunciations spreads, we need to review what Salafism means and examine its historical relation to those who call themselves Salafist-Jihadis.

Towards a Definitions of Salafism

Salafism spreads a very broad tent.  Trying to frame a definition that captures all who call themselves Salafist is bound to be inaccurate to some extent.  A few broad strokes toward a definition are clear.  Salafism is a Sunni movement that entails adherence to the example of the earliest Islamic predecessors, the Salaf, usually associated with the earliest generations of Islam.  Strict Salafists insist that Islamic law, the Shari?ah, must be based on the Holy Qur?an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad alone, although Salafists also argue that issues not settled in the sacred traditions may be addressed using human reason.  Salafists generally take the position that traditions created after the Salaf are innovations and therefore forbidden.  This results in most Salafists opposing Shi?ism and taking a dark view of the mystical tradition in Islam, Sufism.  Salafist scholars of all stripes look to the great fourteenth century religious scholar Ibn Taymiyya for inspiration.  It has been argued, however, that Salafism as a theological position does not require taking any specific political position. [2]

The modern Salafist trend has two parallel points of origin – Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab states of the Gulf (with the notable exception of Shiite majority Bahrain), Salafism is the majority’s preferred version of Islam. In the Arabian Peninsula and especially in Saudi Arabia, Salafism can be traced to the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792).  This version of Salafism was and is primarily reformist.  It is not revolutionary.  Usually, the term “Wahhabism” is used to characterize Salafism in Saudi Arabia.  Saudis consider this term pejorative because it makes mainstream religion of Saudi Arabia sound like a cult centered on one man.  Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was indeed important in establishing the majority approach to theology within the Arabian Peninsula.  His reformist approach, however, like Ibn Taymiyya’s, was meant to be a rational enterprise that opposed superstition as well as innovation in religion.  His view did narrow the field concerning who should be considered a Muslim, but his focus was the chaotic eighteenth century tribal rivalry within the Arabian Peninsula, not the world.  Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s theology thus does not support al-Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad.  His heirs today are the religious scholars who are the pillars of the modern Saudi state and al-Qaeda’s enemies. The Saudi population overwhelmingly prefers its religious institutions and scholars to the revolutionary Salafism of Bin Laden.  Al-Qaeda attacks these mainstream Saudi clerics with the vitriol they usually reserve for the United States.

In a parallel movement, Salafism was rediscovered more than a century later in Egypt.  The term Salafism was used by Rashid Rida (1865-1935) to describe the thoughts of his mentor, Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905).  The Salafism of Muhammad Abduh, like that of his Arabian predecessor, was at its base rational.  If al-Wahhab was on the conservative end of the Salafist spectrum, Abduh was at the liberal end. Abduh, moreover, was forced by circumstances to be an internationalist.  He grew up in a vastly different cosmopolitan milieu in which Egyptians were confronted daily with the material superiority of European culture.  Abduh’s Salafism aimed at an authentic modernization of Egypt and the Near East based on a reformed interpretation of Islam.  Abduh also wanted to show how Islam can be reconciled with modern thought. [3] In Abduh and Rida’s thinking, the reason that the Middle East had fallen behind Europe in science and quality of life was that Muslims had lost the true meaning and basis of Islam and had turned instead to traditions that were little more than superstitions.  Thinkers like Abduh were appalled at colonial-era Egyptian society, which they believed tried to imitate Europeans.  Abduh’s version of Salafism urged Egyptians and other Muslims to rely on their Islamic roots to modernize on a culturally authentic basis.  

Over time Abduh’s followers became more rigid, but education was always at the center of their modernizing agenda.  An heir to this stream of thought was the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), who was not anti-Western as much as he was, like Abduh, against the “blind emulation” of European society. [4] One can argue whether al-Banna was Salafist or not, but as part of his political agenda he created an Islamic education project that was inspired in part by the approach of the Jesuits to education. [5] Because of the growing political importance of the Brotherhood and al-Banna’s sometimes violent resistance to the colonial government, he was assassinated in 1949.  The Brotherhood continued to flourish despite regular crackdowns by the Egyptian Government.  During one of these crackdowns, King Faysal of Saudi Arabia opened the doors of Saudi Arabia to the Muslim Brothers, who arrived to help create the education system of Saudi Arabia and to participate in the Saudi state’s development of pan-Islamic charities and educational programs.  Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the state religious scholars of Saudi Arabia are considered by al-Qaeda ideologues to be within the Salafist family, but both are subjected to blistering criticism because of their “gradualist approach” and compromise with contemporary Muslim regimes.

Revolutionary Salafism

Salafism is al-Qaeda’s great cloak and cover; they are Salafist and would claim to hold the same set of beliefs as most Muslim communities who are Salafist.  Al-Qaeda’s Salafism, however, is revolutionary, a concept adopted from the Egyptians Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) and Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj (1954-1982), but one that had its origins in the work of the Pakistani Islamist Syed Abul A?ala Maududi (1903-1979).  Maududi claimed that Islam is not merely a religion; it is a “revolutionary ideology and program which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world.” [6] Sayyid Qutb adopted this and other Maududi concepts, which were later interpreted by al-Qaeda to mean that no current Muslim Government is truly Islamic.  Muhammad al-Salam Faraj pushed Qutb’s concept of jihad further to create a worldview that argued that jihad should be waged against all Muslim governments.  Al-Qaeda embraced this view as well and then moved beyond it to the doctrine of America as the first target of jihad.  Al-Qaeda argues that jihad against all Americans and all current Muslim leaders is a personal obligation of each Muslim.  This doctrine is the crucial difference that separates revolutionary Salafism from the mainstream version of Salafism that is the moving force within Islam today.  The doctrines of Sayyid Qutb and Maududi are so engrained in jihadists sympathetic to al-Qaeda that a jihadi ideologue and strategist like Abu Mus?ab al-Suri simply refers to the teachings of “Sayyid and Maududi” – no other description is necessary.

The Defeat of the Ideology of Revolutionary Salafism

An ideology like Salafist-Jihadism cannot be overcome by kinetic operations alone.  Leaders who are killed or captured become martyrs; military defeat of insurgent groups drives the ideology underground but does not destroy it.  Fed on the revolutionary writings on classic guerrilla warfare, jihadist strategists counsel retreat from overwhelming force but never surrender.  The relatively new programs leading to renunciation of violence by jihadists need encouragement without naïve expectations.  Governments may choose to release those who renounce violence or keep them in prison.  Without religious education programs for those who surrender and for the general public conducted by respected Muslim religious authorities, the counterterrorist efforts of security services will have no lasting effect.

The net result is that revolutionary Salafists and mainstream Salafists mean different things when they use the term jihad. Revolutionary Salafists support eternal violent jihad until the world becomes Muslim.  Mainstream Salafists support violent jihad only to protect Muslim lands from invasion or imminent threat.  Mainstream Salafists proselytize the world without recourse to violence.  Those who do not see the distinction strengthen al-Qaeda’s hand.  If al-Qaeda and its allies can argue with impunity that they are merely protecting Muslim lands from the Americans or the French, for example, young Muslim men might find a fatal attraction to the call to take up arms.  On the other hand, if traditional Salafist scholars argue that the engineers of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers are wrong on religious grounds (as the Islamist scholars of the Mardin Conference in Turkey did in March), the public at large may get the message.  If more ideologues issue religiously reasoned renunciations of al-Qaeda’s violent path, young recruits may develop their own questions.


1. Camille Tawil, “The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s revisions: one year later,”, July 23, 2010.
2. Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.5. Hegghammer argues that many theological terms such as “salafi, wahhabi, jihadi-salafi, and takfiri do not correspond to discrete and observable patterns of political behavior.”
3. Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought In The Liberal Age, Oxford, 1967, p.56.
4. Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Ithaca Press, 1998, p. 31.
5. Hassan al-Banna: Anja al-wasa’il fi tarbiyat al-nash – tarbiya islamiya khalisa, p.229, cited in Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928-1942, Reading, 1928, p.57.
6. Abul A?ala Maududi, Jihad in Islam, The Holy Koran Publishing House, Beirut, 1980, p.5; Maududi originally delivered this essay as an address on April 13, 1939.